I am working my way through The Great Divorce by C S Lewis. I’ve finished McGrath’s biography of Lewis, so reading Lewis more in historical context is slightly more helpful. I’m just not a great reader of “literature.” I love reading about Lewis, but reading Lewis is just plain slogging at times.
The stories bring to life great truth. In one scene the main character witnesses two illustrations of “holding on.” One was a mother’s love for her son. The other was a man who held on to a lizard. He knew he needed to be rid of the lizard, but he didn’t want the thing killed. The mother was angry for losing her son too soon.
They both illustrated how little we know in this life of true love or of true possession. The mother, it turned out, loved her son too little. The man with the lizard finally allowed it to be killed and both he and the lizard were transformed into something more powerful and beautiful.
We have such limited perspective… but we need not be that way.
A song is sung in this particular scene that demonstrates a prayer we need in our lives:
The Master says to our master, Come up, Share my rest and splendour till all natures that were your enemies become slaves to dance before you and backs for you to ride, and firmness for your feet to rest on…
Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves: we desire the beginning of your reign as we desire dawn and dew, wetness at the birth of light.
When we don’t allow the Kingdom to truly come in our lives, we hold on to things we think are “precious” and they can often be our ruin. Give us Kingdom perspective, Lord!
There are those places, those authors, that continually take my breath away. I can’t hustle through their work. I am beginning the slow journey through the classic Knowing God by J.I. Packer.
Third page in:
Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.
Three pages and I’m already repenting!
I picked up a copy of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which is a fascinating read. At the beginning of each chapter he has some great quotes and I loved this one by Paul Shepard (from Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature)
“To the desert to prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual waves of retreat, not to escape but find reality.”
I have started into Wright’s book, Simply Jesus. I have grown to really like his writing and am challenged by his thinking.
To start off this book, it is about recognizing Jesus is in charge.
It was dangerous talk in Jesus’ day. It’s not very welcome in our day, either.
“Our culture has become used to thinking of Jesus as a ‘religious’ figure rather than a ‘political’ one. We have seen those two categories as watertight compartments, to be kept strictly separate. But it wasn’t like that for Jesus and others of his time… What would it look like… if Jesus not only was in charge then, but is in charge today as well?”
My goal this year is to attempt to re-read some key books that have influenced my life and to slow down on the number of books I read this year to try to read deeper.
I am not sure how the “slower” is going to go, but I did finish Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain as my first book. If I do a project where I re-read things, I start with Merton because his book (besides Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy) is the only book I’ve read multiple times. Merton writes in a way where I grab something new, or am challenged again, every time I read his story.
The lesson I am always challenged with in Merton’s life is prayer. We make the mistake in our Pentecostal circles (and Western evangelical circles) that motion is godly. You have to have ACTION.
What Merton teaches me is PRAYER is action. Withdrawing to a monastery is not retreat from spiritual warfare.
His spiritual mentor gave him incredible words of advice when Merton first entered the monastic life:
“Who knows how many souls are depending on your perseverance in this monastery? Perhaps God has ordained that there are many in the world who will only be saved through your fidelity to your vocation. You must remember them if you are ever tempted to leave. And you will probably be tempted to leave.”
We need to understand the weight of our intercession. There is truly a great battle we undertake when we stay at the task of prayer.
Several years ago I was sharing with a historian in our denomination my work on the monks of the 4th Century in Egypt and what I was learning about their “Pentecostal” experience. He dismissed it quickly, saying that he wasn’t interested in people who retreated from culture and the world instead of engaging it.
We really need to give up this “either/or” thinking, but when it’s embedded culturally over hundreds of years, it’s tough.
Not giving that up is what keeps this nation divided politically and culturally.
Not giving that thinking up also keeps us from learning the value of “both/and” when it comes to “engagement” with this world and particularly this culture. To withdraw is not necessarily the same as to retreat from this world.
Thomas Merton is the one who taught me this lesson. In Seven Storey Mountain he comes to a place where he is trying to understand vocation for his life and thinks he is not called to the monastic life. Nevertheless, he feels led to go off for a week to a monastery in Kentucky. As he enters the monastery he begins to see the life of sacrifice this particular order was called to, but it was not a retreat from the world.
This was 1941. The world was exploding in war and the U.S. was racing toward involvement. It would be easy to think these monks were retreating from the cause. They were ducking their responsibility. The Lord taught Merton another lesson.
“… these men are dying for Me. These monks are killing themselves for Me: and for you, for the world, for the people who do not know Me, for the millions that will never know them on this earth…”
Merton came to realize that their life of withdrawal from “culture” was a life entering into deep spiritual warfare, especially in that time period. He is fundamentally convinced that their prayers kept the world from destroying itself. He even ponders what would have happened if more people had heard that call to prayer…
To withdraw is not necessarily retreat from responsibility in this world. It may be the most responsible thing to do. The primary task is to hear the call of God and respond.
What has attracted me to Seven Storey Mountain over the years is the process of coming to faith. Merton sees his life in process and even when he “comes to faith,” it’s a process.
The passage of his confession and baptism into the Catholic Church is still one of the most moving passages I have ever read. He details the weight that is lifted off his shoulders, the confession of faith, the renouncing of the devil, the exorcising of demons from his life (and he knows they left), and so much more.
When he knew he needed to come to faith and decided to become Catholic, it wasn’t our typical “altar call.” He sought out the priest he knew and the priest gave him three books, telling him to read the books, consider what he was doing, then come back.
That’s just not “godly!” 😉
We could use far more consideration of what God may be doing in our lives and less “spur of the moment” activity. We need to recognize what God is doing all along the way, and even when we have someone come and say, “I want to come into the Kingdom,” we still need to have the fortitude to say, “Let’s consider this.”
I think it may help us from erasing all those notches on our “gospel gun belt.” You know… we have our “gospel gun” like the old West and when someone comes to faith because of our “sharing the faith,” we put a “notch” on our belt. Trouble is, we “shoot” so quick, a lot of those “notches” don’t seem to “stick.”
Lord, help us consider the cost of following you.